None of Your Business!

David Strom
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Posted: Mar 13, 2008 2:23 PM
None of Your Business!

It’s long past time for the nanny state crowd to sit down and shut up.

We’ve been hearing from them for years about the added health care costs of smoking and obesity, and have meekly submitted to ever greater regulation of our private lives in the name of promoting a greater public good, saving health care dollars.

A few hearty libertarian types have had the courage to push back against the tide based upon the quaint notion that it is nobody’s business we do or what we consume as long as it is legal.

But in an age where governments have the right to require seatbelt and helmet use and prohibit the ingestion of bad fats, the conventional wisdom is that there is no part of daily life that is beyond government regulation.

This is particularly true in matters of health. As government has assumed a greater and greater share of the cost of health care government officials have assumed a larger role in trying to cajole and regulate what and how we consume.

The intellectual backbone of the recent wars on smoking and obesity has been the contention that smoking and being fat are not truly private matters, inasmuch as our individual health status imposes costs on society at large. Being a smoker, or being fat, costs society dearly because it is more expensive to treat unhealthy people than healthy people.

By this logic literally everything we do would be a legitimate target of regulation because most choices we make directly or indirectly impact our lifespan, mental health status, or other variables that social engineers might find of interest.

As a proponent of individual freedom and responsibility, I don’t accept this premise as many do. But what if the underlying argument is false? What if smokers or fat people aren’t more expensive to society?

What if they actually are cheaper to care for than their better behaved counterparts? What then happens to the intellectual framework that has propped up the recent spate of social engineering projects aimed at changing our habits through coercive means?

Well, according to a study performed by the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, those unhealthy fat people and smokers turn out to be just that: actually cheaper to care for.

Healthy people, you see, live longer and cost more. And, just like their less healthy counterparts, they still get sick and die eventually.

According to this study thin and healthy people have lifetime health care costs that are nearly 30% higher than smokers, and about 12% higher than fat people. All those costs associated with being unhealthy are outweighed by the fact that people who die younger are cheaper to care for. And that doesn’t include pension costs.

Does this mean that instead of imposing health impact fees on cigarettes and fast food we should now subsidize them, due to their societal benefits? Or perhaps we should impose a tax on juice bars and running shoes?

Of course not. It is none of the government’s business whether you are a health nut or a slob. It wasn’t before when all those nonprofits and government officials were warning about the dire fiscal consequences of our unhealthy behaviors, and it isn’t now that it turns out that being unhealthy is cheaper (at least if you are Dutch). Government shouldn’t be in the business of making lifestyle choices for citizens.

Everything we do has become of legitimate interest to the state. As we have outsourced responsibility for more and more of our basic needs to an ever more powerful nanny state, we have ceded more and more of our freedom.

And as this study shows, our interests are not so clearly in line with government’s. Even if you believed it was in principle a good idea to exchange freedom for security, it turns out that our interests are not always congruent with the State’s. In fact, the State is better off if you die off as your productivity starts to decline. Should the government then shape policy and provide incentives to get your behavior in line with its interests? Of course not.

It’s time to get off the kick that government has any business shaping our individual decisions. Classical liberalism, on which our government is supposed to be based, assumes that governments are instituted among men to protect our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. They do not exist to force, cajole, or even nudge us into behaving as some social engineer would like us to.